Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)

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She refused to give up her Trolley Car Seat or ride in the « Colored » Section of the segregated Trolley Car in Philadelphia (1858) 100 Years before Rosa Parks.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born September 24, 1825, in Baltimore, Maryland to free parents, orphaned by age three; she was raised by an aunt and uncle. She studied Bible, literature, and public speaking at a school founded by her uncle, William Watkins Academy for Negro Youth. Her first job at thirteen was caring for the children of a bookseller; there she began writing, composing poems, and reading the popular literature of the period. At 14, she needed to work, but could only find jobs in domestic service and as a seamstress. She published her first volume of poetry in Baltimore about 1845, Forest Leaves or Autumn Leaves, but no copies are now known to exist. Frances moved from Maryland, a slave state, to Ohio, a free state in 1850, the year of the Fugitive Slave Act. In Ohio she taught domestic science as the first woman faculty member at Union Seminary (Columbus), an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) school which later was merged into Wilberforce University. A new law in 1853 prohibited any free black persons from re-entering Maryland. In 1854, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper moved to Pennsylvania for a teaching job in Little York. The next year she moved to Philadelphia. During these years, she became involved in the anti-slavery movement and with the Underground Railroad. Her first abolitionist speech was a marked success. She lectured frequently on abolitionism in New England, the Midwest, and California, preaching social and political reform and moral betterment. Her poetry was published in poetry magazines and newspapers. Her Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, published in 1854 with a preface by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, sold several thousand copies and saw at least twenty editions. Containing her most-acclaimed abolitionist poem, « Bury Me in a Free Land, » it firmly established Harper’s literary reputation. In 1858, Frances entered a streetcar and sat down. The conductor came to her and insisted she leave, but she stayed quietly in her seat. A passenger intervened, asking if she might be permitted to sit in a corner. She did not move. When she reached her destination, Frances got up and tried to pay the fare, but the conductor refused to take her money. She threw it down on the floor and left. It was all about racism. The white conductor was giving Frances Ellen Watkins, a hard time because she was African American, and Watkins was having none of it. She believed in equality. She believed in treating all people with dignity and respect. Her work obliged her to travel from place to place, and she was used to enduring prejudice and injustice. She had the courage not to let it stop her. She donated most of the money she earned from her books to the antislavery cause. Whenever she could, she sent a few dollars to William Still for the Vigilance Committee and the fugitives. At one point, he must have admonished Watkins to keep more of her earnings for herself. She wrote back, « Let me explain a few matters to you. In the first place, I am able to give something. In the second place, I am willing to do so. » In fact, she was more than willing and able. To her, helping humanity was a sacred calling, and she felt blessed to be able to do it. « Oh, is it not a privilege, » she wrote to a friend, « if you are sisterless and lonely, to be a sister to the human race, and to place your heart where it may throb close to down-trodden humanity? »
Watkins supported a movement called Free Produce, which encouraged people to boycott all products tied to slave labor. « Oh, could slavery exist long if it did not sit on a commercial throne? » she wrote. « Our moral influence against slavery must be weakened, our testimony diluted if . . . we are constantly demanding rice from the swamps, cotton from the plantations, and sugar from the deadly mills. »
She hoped that blacks would establish a network of schools, newspapers, and churches dedicated to the betterment of themselves and each other. She believed that an important goal of antislavery work was to teach her people « how to build up a character for themselves—a character that will challenge respect in spite of opposition and prejudice; to develop their own souls, intellect and genius, and thus verify their credentials. »
Frances Harper advocated for equality and reforms for the rest of her life. The racist rhetoric of her day was ugly and white people who harmed or even murdered blacks usually went unpunished, yet she did not give in to anger or despair. Her words helped Americans across racial lines understand their common humanity and common yearnings. She believed she could contribute to the betterment of society by uplifting her listeners, and she hoped that her life might « gladden the earth. » She shone a light on injustice so that others might see it more clearly—but she remained confident that some day, there would be liberty and justice for all. She died in 1911.

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